A Persian puzzle
When Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan met Iranian President Seyed Ibrahim Raisi on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Dushanbe, it was perhaps without the bonhomie that would ordinarily accompany such a meeting. But then these are extraordinary times, with the Taliban sweeping to power after the escape of Ashraf Ghani who, from the confines of his ivory tower in Kabul, perhaps imagined that the US would never abandon him and who also made the cardinal sin of believing his own spin.
As the region and the world attempts to reconcile itself with the new reality, Iran seems increasingly discomfited despite initially having welcomed ‘the military defeat and withdrawal of the United States’ from Afghanistan. Soon after the Taliban took Kabul, Iran resumed fuel supplies to Afghanistan in what was seen as an attempt to, if not normalize relations, then to at least not start off on the wrong foot with the new rulers of Kabul. But then once the Taliban assault on the Panjshir Valley began, the messaging from Iran became curious indeed, with Iranian media alleging that the Pakistan military was assisting the Taliban offensive with special forces and drone strikes. This allegation had previously been made in the hysterical clown show that is the Indian media which, true to form, used old footage from air exercises in Wales and Arizona and the occasional video game to illustrate its farcical reports. But even that spectacle was less surreal than seeing Iranian media quoting Fox News (not exactly known for its fair and balanced approach toward Iran) which in turn quoted an anonymous CENTCOM (which is listed as a terrorist organization in Iran) source as the origin of this ‘report.’
Now, one could argue that these are media reports and thus by no means an official state narrative-- but then just a few days back, an Iranian MP repeated the allegation, even going so far as to accuse Pakistan of using Chechen veterans of the Syrian civil war in this alleged assault. Now this is amusing because it’s not so much the pot calling the kettle black, but the pot actually inventing a kettle; if anyone can be accused of using proxy forces as an extension of foreign policy it is Iran, which has used sectarian militias operating under the aegis of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to project power and influence across the Middle East, from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. It’s been a rather successful and relatively low-cost strategy, the transnational nature of which was on full display when on September 16, a convoy of Iranian fuel trucks entered Lebanon through Syria and was welcomed by Hezbollah members. A successful strategy begs to be replicated in other theaters and so Iran likely bet on doing the same in an Afghanistan where the Taliban and government forces would remain in a military deadlock for some time to come. In that scenario, not only would Ismail Khan of Herat prove an invaluable asset, but a prolonged conflict may also have provided the opportunity to redeploy the Liwa Fatemiyoun, a militia comprised of Afghan Shias which saw extensive action in Iraq and Syria. Even if that deployment never took place, Iran would still have been able to use the good offices of its main Afghan ally, warlord Ismail Khan of Herat, to project influence in a post-US dispensation.
If anyone can be accused of using proxy forces as an extension of foreign policy it is Iran, which has used sectarian militias operating under the aegis of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to project power and influence across the Middle East, from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon.
Instead, Ismail Khan fled to Iran after surrendering to the Taliban and the quick conclusion to the fighting meant that Iran would gain no strategic depth in Afghanistan the way it had in Iraq and beyond. But that alone cannot explain Iran’s ire toward Pakistan, which it likely sees as having gained influence at Tehran’s expense, and so we must cast a broader net and switch our view from geostrategy to geoeconomics and in particular the future trade routes that may crisscross this region.
Iran’s desire to become the primary trade route through which exports from Afghanistan, and eventually transit trade from Central Asia would reach the world has also seen a setback especially in the context of talks regarding operationalizing the transit trade agreement between Uzbekistan and Pakistan, which would see transit trade being shifted from Iranian ports to Pakistani ports. Not only is that bad news for Bandar Abbas, it’s also yet another blow to Iranian hopes to further develop the Chabahar port, a joint project between Tehran and New Delhi.
Chabahar had already been suffering from delays and had also been seeing declining volumes due to the pandemic. The Taliban takeover then, may prove to be the final nail in the coffin of this already-troubled project and the fate of the transit agreement signed by the Ghani government with India and Iran is also now uncertain. None of this is good news for a cash-strapped Iran.
Despite this, the targeting of Pakistan by Iranian media and officials does seem like a strategic miscalculation, given Iran’s preoccupations in the Middle East. Brinkmanship may be a hallmark of Iranian policy, but it only works when you know for sure where the brink actually is.
- Zarrar Khuhro is a Pakistani journalist who has worked extensively in both the print and electronic media industry. He is currently hosting a talk show on Dawn News. Twitter: @ZarrarKhuhro